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Three lessons on mental health in the workplace

Here's what we learnt at Legal & General's Not A Red Card mental health conference

A successful career does not guarantee good mental health

In her keynote speech Olympic athlete Kelly Holmes talked about her own mental health struggles, which affected her most at the highest point in her career.

Holmes said that having a successful career is not necessarily an indicator of strong mental health. “When I look back on my own achievements I can see that to some people I must have had it all. Lots of sportspeople have ups and downs. You are terrified you will never achieve your dream, but it is having the dream that keeps you going,” she said.

“But sometimes sport can be the loneliest place in the world. You can be surrounded by a team and still feel totally alone. With running there's so much physical and mental pressure."

Holmes added that the immense pressure of athletics led her to self-harm. "I've been very open about the depression that led to the self-harming, which acted as a release from the deep despair I was feeling. I was worried about appearing weak so didn't tell my coach or training partners, and didn't want to worry my friends or family," she said.

Ultimately though opening up about her mental health saved her, she said: “Having a mental health issue does not define you. It’s part of a journey, and being able to talk about it and then get other people to talk about it has made me much stronger."

Education plays a key role in tackling mental illness

Steve Carr, a mental health and recovery first aid tutor, lost his job after he disclosed that he was struggling with his mental health.

“Eventually I went to my doctor and explained in the best way that I could what was going on with me. I was signed off from work for a month with work-related stress," he said. “On my return I was placed on a performance improvement plan, within three months I was managed out of the business, and – in that same month – I attempted suicide on three separate occasions."

Carr admitted that the problems were exacerbated because he had not been fully transparent with medical professionals about the extent of his problem. “I eventually went back and told my doctor the truth. I had a £100 a day cocaine habit, which stemmed from the death of my brother when I was 15. I struggled all the way until I was 39 years old, which was only four years ago. I was then diagnosed with borderline PTSD, high-performing anxiety, depression, childhood trauma and addiction,” he said.

As part of his recovery Carr walked more than 1,000 miles while living off just £100 over the course of a couple of months to raise awareness of both mental illness and homelessness.

During this time he spoke to numerous mental health charities and organisations about what they were doing to help with these problems. Afterwards he delivered a report to then-prime minister David Cameron on his findings.

Carr said that rather than mental health issues hindering him they have allowed him to start a rewarding new career path: “In the four years since my recovery I [became] a trained mental health first aider, obtained a pilot’s license, worked with the NHS on the early intervention team, and have started my own business. I am pleased that I am still here, and that the crisis has allowed me to help others with their mental health.”

He encouraged employers to continue to stay informed on mental health issues: “In hindsight I wish I had told my employers the truth, but there was nowhere near as much understanding even four years ago as there is now. I believe education and understanding are key for change. Employers need to focus on what [individuals] need to stay well.”

HR must be bold and measure progress

Suzy McCormick, joint head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at the Department for Transport, said her team had been bold in making mental illness more visible and opening up conversations around it.

“Let’s not be puritanical about talking about mental health at work... you can give a hook that will allow everyone to start talking about it. Be shameless in asking for support, because the people at the top probably will help you if you ask nicely enough," she said.

McCormick explained how the Cabinet Office introduced a number of measures to increase awareness of mental illness: “Through getting the Cabinet to wear green pin badges and lighting up Westminster green we’ve helped to make the issue of mental health far more visible. Our chief people officer [Rupert McNeil] has also spoken very openly about his mental health, it’s been really inspiring."

Businesses must take formal action too, she added: “We have around 2,000 mental health first aiders and workplace adjustment passports. We say that you don’t have to disclose a mental health issue or disability; you just need to say what you need and we will look at if it’s reasonable.

"If this is a business priority for you, which I hope it is, treat it like any other. Measure it, track it, and encourage it to progress."

Further reading

Are we on the cusp of a mental health crisis?

Taking action on employee mental health webinar

Building the business case for action on mental health

The line manager's role in mental wellbeing

Affordable action: Mental health initiatives that won't break the bank

Millennial mental health: A particular problem?